The Car Man at the Old Vic

There are numerous modern dance companies doing good small to middle scale work up and down the land; so what it is about Matthew Bourne's Adventures in Motion Pictures that has propelled it to the kind of West End presence, not to mention production values, that others can only dream of?

The answer is immediately apparent in their latest work, The Car Man, which has just opened at the Old Vic (and where AMP will, in early 2002, be installed as full-time resident company, utilising the office and rehearsal space when not actually appearing there). It lies in the fact that Bourne and his collaborators - notably designer Lez Brotherston, lighting designer Chris Davey and musical director Brett Morris - create an entire, inhabited world onstage; that although it employs the entirely non-verbal means of dance, it is narrative driven and entirely lucid; that it is, in short, hugely theatrical.

Not for nothing has Bourne been quoted as referring to his pieces as 'shows', rather than ballets; they are infected with a real showbiz pizzazz and production that you usually associate with musicals. They are, if you like, dansicals. It helps, too, that the company is full of gorgeous young people; and the steamy show - literally so in a nude shower scene that some of the boy dancers cheekily appear in early on - is therefore sexy as hell.

Not for nothing, either, have the company subtitled the piece 'An Auto-Erotic Thriller'. That skilful and witty play on words is both teasing and telling: it pleases itself and is pleased by itself. And, set in a similarly ironically named tiny town called Harmony, there's an automobile garage and diner centre-stage, owned by Dino. When Luca, a drifter, comes to town, and has an affair with both Dino's wife, Lana, and Angelo, the boyfriend of her sister, the stage is set for a tale of disharmony.

Using a tremendous, contemporary sounding new orchestration of Bizet's score for Carmen, which contains all the familiar themes but with a dazzlingly fresh spin to it, the story it spins is inspired by Hollywood film noirs. It's fast and funny, involving and invigorating, though hardly original.

As with previous AMP shows, style is all; everything is in the wonderful presentation. I'm no dance expert, but it doesn't take a genius to recognise the limitations to Bourne's choreographic ability: lively and immediate, his steps are in the standard-issue Broadway mould, particularly of Jerome Robbins and the amazing West Side Story which this too often resembles. Dance afficionados will also appreciate the pastiche of the legendary Martha Graham in the second act - something which the drag musical Pageant (at the Vaudeville) has also done this season.

Bourne's production of Swan Lake, by its nature and imagination, struck deeper psychological resonances; but as pure spectacle, The Car Man delivers an experience just as entertaining.

Mark Shenton